Muhammad and the origins of Islam

Barnabas Fund The Barnabas Fund is an international, interdenominational Christian aid agency based in Coventry, in the West Midlands of England that supports Christians who face discrimination or persecution as
01 September, 2011 5 min read

Muhammad and the origins of Islam

The standard Muslim teaching on the origin of Islam is as follows. Islam was founded in the early seventh century in Arabia by Muhammad, a merchant born in the city of Mecca. According to the sources (which are all Muslim) Muhammad was born in AD 570 or 571.
   He was employed by a wealthy widow called Khadija to manage her caravan trade, work which involved travelling and gave him the opportunity to meet with Jews and Christians.
   When he was 25 Muhammad married Khadija, who was then aged 40. They had seven children, all of whom died young, except for a daughter called Fatima. After 25 years of marriage Khadija died and Muhammad went on to marry a further 12 wives.
   Marriage to Khadija made Muhammad a man of some importance and enabled him to find time to meditate on religious matters. By the time he was about 40, he had become very concerned about the pagan beliefs of his fellow Arabs.
   He began to spend time meditating in a cave on a mountain, a few miles from Mecca. During these periods of meditation, he believed that the angel Gabriel appeared to him and gave him messages to preach to the world. These supposed ‘revelations’ were gathered together later by his followers and became the Qur’an.
   Although most of the people of Mecca rejected Muhammad’s preaching, he gradually gathered a small band of followers, some of whom were his relatives. By AD 613 there were probably about 50 Muslims.
   The hostile opposition of the Meccans eventually led Muhammad to send his followers to seek asylum elsewhere. Some went to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) in 613-5 and others fled to a city about 250 miles north of Mecca, which became known as Medina.

Turning point

Muhammad himself was amongst those who went to Medina. He was warmly welcomed by the citizens, who were longing for a strong leader to unite them. The year of Muhammad’s migration (hijra) from Mecca to Medina was 622. The hijra was such a turning point in Muhammad’s career that it has become the starting date of the Islamic calendar.
   Many Muslims view the hijra as the first of a series of clearly defined stages in their political quest to establish an Islamic state, modelled on the example of what Muhammad did. For such Muslims, migration can be the first part of the process of Islamisation.
   Muhammad soon became the supreme ruler of Medina — effectively statesman, legislator and judge. In 623 he began sending his followers out to raid the trading caravans from Mecca, and within a few months he was leading these raids himself.
   Many tribes converted to Islam to avoid being attacked by the Muslim armies. The military power of the Muslim community in Medina increased. The Meccans surrendered to them and Muhammad entered Mecca victoriously, destroyed the pagan idols in its sanctuary (the kaba) and turned it into the centre of Islam.

Later developments

Muhammad continued to receive more ‘revelations’ after he moved to Medina. However the content of these ‘revelations’ and of his preaching was somewhat different from what he had preached in Mecca.
   For example, in Mecca Muhammad had preached that Muslims should be friendly towards Jews and Christians, even recognising the validity of their faiths. He had told Muslims to face Jerusalem when they prayed.
   In Medina he became increasingly hostile towards Jews and Christians, and told his followers that they should now face Mecca when they prayed.
   It was during his time in Medina that Muhammad established Friday as the day for corporate worship and introduced the annual month of fasting. He also taught that the Qur’an was God’s final revelation to mankind and superior to all previous revelations.

Sunnis and Shias

A violent split occurred within the Muslim community starting in 657. The dispute centred on who should be caliph or supreme ruler of the Muslims, but later many other doctrinal differences developed.
   The result was three groupings: Sunnis (80-90 per cent of all Muslims today); Shias (10-20 per cent of all Muslims today, a majority in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain); and Kharijis (non-existent today, though a sub-sect is still found in Oman, East Africa and North Africa).
   Over the following centuries, the Shias split many times, resulting in many different sects including the Ismailis, Druze and Bahais.


Islamic mysticism is known as Sufism, and Sufis can be found in most other groups and sects.
   Central to Sufism is the desire for a personal loving relationship with God and a feeling of closeness to him. The methods used to try to achieve this feeling are meditation, using the Muslim rosary and repeating one or another of God’s names to try to enter a trance.
   One of the Sufi brotherhoods use a rapid rotating dance to enter into a trance and are sometimes called ‘whirling dervishes’.

Folk Islam

‘Folk Islam’ is the term used to describe the mixture of Islam and various non-Muslim cultural practices, particularly superstitious or occult practices. This is followed by many Muslims, especially the uneducated and poor, and especially women.
   The main concern of folk Islam is to try to use spiritual powers to meet felt needs, such as healing, exorcism and protection from evil jinn. It involves curses, vows, amulets and pilgrimages to the tombs of Muslim saints, who are seen as intercessors.
   Muhammad is considered a powerful intercessor and venerated almost as if he were God.


Wahhabism is a strict and puritanical movement within Sunni Islam which was founded by Abd al-Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula in the eighteenth century. Wahhabis condemn Sufism and folk Islam.
   Wahhabism is now spreading rapidly across the world, because the oil wealth of Saudi Arabia is being used to promote it.

Salafis are Sunni Muslims who seek a return to the purest form of original Islam as practised by Muhammad and the two generations that followed him.
   They reject everything new and do not even accept the traditional Sunni forms of sharia. They are guided by their own direct and literal interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith.
   Although the terms ‘Salafism’ and ‘Wahhabism’ are often used interchangeably, Salafis consider themselves to be more radical purifiers than the Wahhabis. Salafis have very strict codes on dress and behaviour, and most ban modern inventions such as photography, conventional banking and elections.


A very small minority of Muslims have adapted their faith to conform to modernity. They accept the Western understanding of concepts like human rights, democracy, equality, freedom of thought and speech, separation of state and religion, and are willing to criticise their own faith and Islamic history. They are bitterly criticised by many other Muslims and their lives are often threatened.

Islamists (often called fundamentalists)

These are radical Muslims who want to revive Islam’s glory. They are active in seeking to transform their societies to conform with sharia, and eventually to Islamise the whole world.
   They want to replicate the first Islamic state that Muhammad established. They take literally the classical Islamic teaching about expanding Islam by jihad.
   Some are willing to use violence and terror to achieve their goals. Islamists are a minority, but a growing minority as the conservative majority is becoming increasingly radicalised.
   By the time Muhammad died in 632, the Muslim armies had conquered virtually the whole of the Arabian peninsula, although the degree of Islamic control varied from place to place. After his death, his successors continued his programme of military expansion.

Barnabas Fund

The Barnabas Fund is an international, interdenominational Christian aid agency based in Coventry, in the West Midlands of England that supports Christians who face discrimination or persecution as
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